The following article is an excerpt from the Central Illinois’ #1 news source, the Illinois Herald & Review and an article written by H&R’s Executive Sports Editor, Mark Tupper…
CHAMPAIGN – It was already turning into a frustrating basketball season, the kind that can make an Illini head coach grow grumpy and old.
No, not men’s coach Bruce Weber.
We’re talking about first-year Illini women’s coach Jolette Law.
It was January and Law, who arrived in May after 12years as an assistant at Rutgers, was running headlong into the first-year blues. She was trying to revitalize the Illini program, and that meant instituting changes. Changes in practice habits. Changes in game styles. Changes in expectations.
Players were resisting, and the team was falling into the habit of losing close games.
The Illini women’s team was at a crossroads, and now, as Illinois prepares to play Marquette in its second Women’s NIT game tonight in Milwaukee, Law can look back at two influences that turned the season around.
One was a relationship she sought with Illini football coach Ron Zook.
The other was an outsider she brought in to speak about mental skills. A planned three-hour session turned into an eight-hour confessional in which players and coaches alike agreed it was finally time “to throw out the garbage,” Law said Tuesday.
One of the first things Law did when taking over the program was to encourage her players to support other athletic teams on campus. They attended football and volleyball games. Law talked with Weber, and the women supported the men’s basketball team.
But because Zook had come in and faced similar challenges, and because she saw Zook making substantial progress with the Illini football team, she struck up a special relationship with him.
They talked. They swapped text messages. They pledged mutual support.
“He’s the one I patterned my program after,” Law said. “He’s been my mentor all year. I’ve picked his brain and I can only hope to get the women’s basketball program going in that direction.”
One of their conversations was about changing the culture within a sports program. Zook had to do it with the football program, altering expectations, beliefs and work habits. And, of course, he upgraded with better athletes.
When Law encountered resistance within her program,she called Zook for advice.
“I was just trying to change the culture and get the ladies to believe we could win,” Law said. “I was trying to get them used to my practices, which are very intense. There’s a lot of running, conditioning and drill work, and they weren’t used to that. In the beginning, they resisted.
“Coach Zook told me to keep doing what you do. Remain who you are. It’s a process. Do not change who you are. If they want to do it the right way, they will change. That’s a decision I made early on, and I found out a lot about some of our ladies.”
She found out that not everyone would buy into her plan. Danyel Crutcher, a senior power forward and the team’s No. 2 scorer, was among those fighting the changes.She left the team before a Jan. 27 loss at Purdue – Illinois’ sixth loss in seven games.
Coincidentally, Law had hired Spencer Wood, who runs a company called Icebox, which specializes in mental skills training and psychology techniques for athletes.
Wood arrived to meet with the Illini team, and the meeting stretched for eight hours, during which, “we didn’t talk about mental skills. We talked about what was happening internally,” Law said.
“We had a heart-to-heart, a very deep meeting. Once the meeting was over, we decided to take the garbage out and start over new. And from that point on, we started to bond and be one … the total team.”
The next day, the Illini upset 19th-ranked Ohio State. It started the team toward establishing better habits, and the Illini go into tonight’s game having won five of their last six, including an NIT victory over Drake on Monday.
Zook even came to speak to the women’s team, and Law said the players were impressed that a coach who had taken the Illini to the Rose Bowl would have interest in them.
“He told them I knew what I was talking about, andif they’d let their coaches take them, it can be done. They embraced what he said and listened. It’s always good to hear it from someone else,” Law said.
On Tuesday, as Zook spoke to the media about the start of spring football practice, Law dropped by to talk about her team’s game against Marquette.
“She should have been up here first,” Zook said. “She’s the winner.”
Law said there’s a lot of winning that must take place before the public rediscovers Illini women’s basketball again.
“When I’m at Wal-Mart or at church, I tell people,`Please come and support our program.’ But you have to win. Everyone loves a winner.”
The fans are returning to Memorial Stadium because Ron Zook has given them a winner.
Perhaps Law is just beginning to enjoy a similar turnaround.